Thursday, December 12, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Thoughts from our artistic director Judith Jerome on 12 Years a Slave

Back on the sweet Piedmont in Oakland last night; my daughter, Effie, her sweetheart, Art, and I went to see 12 Years a Slave in the little Piedmont art house cinema where a callow youth gave a charming intro and preview of what’s to come, just like at the OH, and at the end an even more callow phalanx of youths came in with brooms and dustpans to clean up just like Annie Baker’s The Flick!

We sat not only through the credits after, but for maybe another five minutes still while first I and then Effie stopped sobbing. It is as hard a movie as I have ever seen. We talk after about how much better and more truthful we become about portraying violence in film—at the same time, Art points out, that another kind of gratuitous violence becomes the norm in many mainstream films.

Because of choreographer and dance therapist David Harris, I am thinking a lot, again, about muscular empathy, which has obsessed me for decades in live performance. Those live neurons firing muscle, even when an actor is not moving, kick off similar neurons in an attentive audience, and are what make really good theater really good theater. It’s different in film, without the presence of the live. Film depends on the visual, and on sound—which is maybe why it has to be so much more egregious, or extreme and detailed. It still affects the viewer’s body, but not in the same way, I think. What is the difference? It all comes through the eyes and ears?

Much of the violence in mainstream films is like a thrill ride, with films like The Lone Ranger, and James Bond at one extreme and both hilarious and terrifying end, and whatever the other end is I know only remotely because I don’t see those films and can’t even think of a title at the moment.

Then there are films like 12 Years and Saving Private Ryan and I am trying to remember the film set in Afghanistan with Rachel Weisz, or The Hurt Locker, films that try to tell the truth, with the visceral portrayal of violence and cruelty a principle tool of that truth telling. I was thinking last night about films from my childhood, Gone With the Wind, about the Civil War; Stars in My Crown, about the Ku Klux Klan; that famous movie—ah the painfully slow retrieval of proper nouns!—with Jimmy Stewart about World War I. These were films that dealt with our collective trauma, and were very affecting at the time. When Ashley went off to fight in GWTW my little child body rose up out of her seat and waved good bye with tears streaming down my face; and I was terrified for years of the night riders in their white hoods in SIMC. But they were a pale imitation of the terror and violence we are now able to portray, both technically and—this is the crux of what I am trying to get at—humanistically or psychologically or culturally.

It is like those early portrayals were all euphemisms for violence and inhumanity, and we are getting closer to the real thing, at being able to handle really looking at the real thing. Or is this just my idealism, my what do you call it, eschatological tendency to think in terms of final happy ends? A progressive development?

The Deer Hunterwas the first such film that I recall. And it paralleled a growing awareness of war that, as I perceive it, began with the Vietnam War, and that we are still in the midst of. (Our friend and war historian and ptsd expert, Tom Ricks, might argue with this timeline.) I was citing last night the terrible statistic that the number of military suicides now exceeds the number of combat deaths. We are no longer able, culturally, to compartmentalize war, to justify or glorify it. Surely this is a good thing. A kind of coming to consciousness.

I and of course many others have long argued that in this country racism is our deep and abiding cultural wound. It is the split, the dissociation between the avowed idealism of Christianity which propelled Europeans out of the old world and into the new, which are our founding values, at the root of us--and the reality of how we performed that Christianity relative to the Others we encountered. Any psychologist treating an individual client presenting this split would diagnose trouble here.

Does the making and reception of a film like 12 Years a Slave say something about our cultural ability to align, to incorporate a dissociated part of ourselves, our deep racism, back into the fold, into consciousness? To really look at it in all of its manifestations? Not only at what graphically happened to black bodies and psyches, but at the true insanity of its white perpetrators at the one end; and the passive agony of those who erred on the side of non-action at the other.

One last thought, the story is told through a black man who was “civilized,” in a white, European manner. Who enjoyed the privileges that were already accruing on the backs of Africans and Native Americans. We see slavery through the eyes of a privileged black man, which is part of why it is so unrelentingly, as Effie pointed out, awful. That is, the filmmaker gives us a very particular point of view, which might allow white audiences a different kind of access, allow us more empathy. I haven’t got this quite, and am not done with this topic.

Today I am thinking, laterally about the brutality of the white overlords in 12 Years a Slave.

In David Harris’ work with child soldiers in Sierra Leone he created a safe space of movement and language in which, through very simple exercises that any of us in the expressive arts know, he and his team slowly established a muscular empathy among the participants—which led to a growing conscious and articulable empathy among them. In stages the boys were able, through dance, ritual, and role playing, to begin to identify in their bodies what had happened to them, the atrocities, as parents were murdered before them etc., and they were initiated into perpetrating violence themselves, often through required acts against their families. And then to begin to identify and feel empathy with the victims of the atrocities they themselves had committed.  And finally to genuinely ask for forgiveness from the community.

What I was particularly interested in in his account was the changes in the boys’ faces, the way the masks dropped away. And I am thinking about the masks of the faces of the plantation owners and overseers.

And I am thinking about Jeannette Wall’s work, The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, particularly the latter, which is a semi-fictional telling of her grandmother’s story. Very much a story of the rural west at the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, and brutal, too, in many ways, in its poverty, the realities of subsistence farming, what was required of a person in terms of bucking up, independence, handling extreme and often cruel circumstances. I am also rereading The Grapes of Wrath for a project that we are doing in the school in the spring. The characters Steinbeck draws are so gorgeous, and so brutalized by poverty, and of course by the weather and a system that is totally exacerbating the exigencies of the weather through breaking open the soil, mechanization, unfair usury practices. Steinbeck is so spot on—I say that with knowledge of my own Okie family, very much part of this lineage.

Or I could think about the first European settlers, the Mayflower and other stories, the terrible cold and hunger and lack of coping skills.

And I’m thinking of Peter Levine in Waking the Tiger and his argument that animals have a physical mechanism for kind of literally shaking off trauma—which we humans do not similarly possess

Poor people, my friend Debbie Little says. Marx and Engels via Art and wholly simplified by me: Bronze Age tools inaugurated a new order in which excess production, beyond what was immediately needed, carried with it the potential or impulse for using others. But I don’t believe that brutality is simply part of human make-up. I don’t believe that the plantation owners and overseers just made some kind of choice to see Africans as less than human, an error in judgment, or even that they were taken over by greed. The masks of their faces tell something different, tell of their own brutalization. Poor people. The first years of settling this country were HARD, and the events that sent Europeans here were hard, as were the millennia that preceded them. Ours is a brutal history.

Harris’ work tells us that if we are unable to deal with what happens to us the events are stored in our bodies. As long as they remain stored and unconscious they lead us to behave in horrific, unfeeling ways.

My eschatological impulses surfacing again—are we developing now the possibility for responding to the brutality of millennia of human existence in a different way? Is the emergence of a film like 12 Years a Slave another indication 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

One Salt Smell of the Sea Once More

Ben Barrows at Opera House Arts
Annual Evening of Poetry

This last Thursday evening, Opera House Arts hosted our now annual evening of poetry. Like those that preceded it, this was a magical, intimate evening, with rhythm word and rhyme filling the soft wooden space of the more than 100-year-old opera house and resonating with the engaged audience of neighbors and friends who attended.

Deborah Cummins, poet, writer, and former chair of the Poetry Foundation, and Maine poet Dawn Potter lead the way. They were followed by a group of five year round island residents, each selecting two poems on the theme of HOME: Celebrating Place & Community, and explaining why they made their selections.

Even in a small, remote village like Stonington, on the island of Deer Isle, where the power of place is strongly felt each day, surrounded as we are by the sparkling sea and the largest archipelago on the coast of Maine, this evening filled us all with a deeper understanding of how a place grabs us, how it becomes home, and all the lovely and terrible things home means to most of us.

Here is a lovely blog post on the evening by OHA board member Debbie Weil.

And below is my personal favorite poem of the evening, read by Ben Barrows, who grew up here and has now returned, after several years working in international development in the middle east, to run his family business: the local weekly newspaper, the Island Ad-Vantages. I was lucky enough to work some with Ben when he was younger, and I was News Editor of the paper, in 2001-2003, and it was a pleasure to have him join us, for the first time, on the Opera House stage.

Maybe one of you will be a reader next year!


  by Edna St. Vincent Millay
People that build their houses inland,
   People that buy a plot of ground
Shaped like a house, and build a house there,
   Far from the sea-board, far from the sound

Of water sucking the hollow ledges,
   Tons of water striking the shore,—
What do they long for, as I long for
   One salt smell of the sea once more?

People the waves have not awakened,
   Spanking the boats at the harbour's head,
What do they long for, as I long for,—
   Starting up in my inland bed,

Beating the narrow walls, and finding
   Neither a window nor a door,
Screaming to God for death by drowning,—
   One salt taste of the sea once more? - See more at:

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"Voyeur" Aug 15-18: Video Partnering Astonishes

A Short History on the Development of Voyeur from the Choreographers, Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer

Hello! We are Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer, the choreographers, performers, and Artistic Directors of Bridgman|Packer Dance. We have collaborated with each other in choreography and performance for more than 30 years and have developed our concept of “Video Partnering”, the integration of live performance and video technology. Our work has been presented by Lincoln Center, The Baryshnikov Arts Center, Dance Theater Workshop (now NYLA), Jacob’s Pillow, Japan’s Kintetsu Theater, Spoleto Festival USA, Bates Dance Festival, and Munich International Dance Festival among other venues. To learn more about our work: and Bridgman|Packer Dance on Facebook.
Our latest work, Voyeur, takes the paintings of Edward Hopper (1882‐1967) as its point of departure. We were drawn to his works where scenes are viewed through windows and doorways. At the heart of Voyeur is the seen or unseen viewer witnessing fragmented moments of private lives. We are looking at the roles of both the audience and the performers as voyeurs.
Top: Edward Hopper's "Night Windows
Bottom: from Bridgman Packer's "Voyeur,"
photo by Arthur Fink
To us, voyeurism is about point of view and perspective, where someone observes a private moment while being architecturally removed from the space they are viewing. Voyeurism is inherently locked into the formal nature of space and perspective, which Edward Hopper masterfully used to give his work an underlying emotional tone.
The development of our stage set was the breakthrough that allowed us to find this relationship of space and perspective. A multi‐surfaced structure, comprised of a series of hinged panels at various angles, is transformed through the use of video projections, evoking imagery of both spatial and psychological enclosures. A sense of depth is created with additional scenes projected on the wall behind the set. The audience views the live performers and the back scenes through the set’s windows and doorways.
Once we had created this set structure where the performers are placed physically inside the video projections and the audience’s view is influenced by the architecture, our choreographic process took off. Our concept of “video partnering”, where the live and the virtual have equal presence on stage, found new territory choreographically, thematically, and technologically.
We are not interested in recreating or staging Hopper’s paintings. For us, this work is about being immersed in his world of color, light, form, perspective, and the theme of voyeurism, which implies isolation, regret, ennui, and obstruction.
Voyeur had its inception in the community where we live in the New York Hudson Valley. Edward Hopper’s birthplace and childhood home is now the Edward Hopper House Arts Center ( in Nyack, NY. The Hopper House became a co‐commissioner of Voyeur along with Portland Ovations (Portland, ME). During the summer of 2011, Portland Ovations offered us a creative residency that was instrumental in the development of the piece. It was an extremely fruitful week during which most of the footage used in the piece was filmed. It was all shot in natural light, so activity increased during the last hours before sunset, which our film collaborator Peter Bobrow calls the “magic hour”. Shadows become long and the color of light is nuanced, changing every minute. We raced from the Old Port, to the Custom House, to the West End, filming and chasing the perfect light.
In developing Voyeur, we had a fabulous creative team to work with: Filmmaker Peter Bobrow, Sound Designers Scott Lehrer and Leon Rothenberg, and Lighting Designer Frank DenDanto III.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Acting Across the Boards

by Debbie Weil
OHA Board member, author, and digital publisher

Acting is equal parts exhilaration and terror. Exhilaration because you are creating a live experience for the audience that makes them think and feel. And terror because you’ve got to remember your lines, remember your cues, and then deliver every nuance of pitch and timing and gesture that the director has called for. There is no safety net. You are under the lights, in the moment and, if you are lucky, in the flow.
I learned this last summer when I was given the chance to tread the boards for the first time as one of the lead actors in Sue Bolton’s lovely ten-minute play, “Hide and Seek.” Working with director Judith Jerome was extraordinary. It felt like a guilty pleasure. As an OHA board member and a lifelong theatre goer, I know something about live performances. But not until I rehearsed (and rehearsed) under Judith’s direction was the curtain really drawn. I began to understand what happens on stage and behind the scenes to make a play come to life.
More recently, I had the chance to attend a rehearsal of the winter play, John Cariani’s Last Gas. Sitting in the audience, a few rows behind Judith who directed the production, I had a far keener appreciation of what was happening on stage. It was a scene that took place on the divided stage set and required almost simultaneous lines between actors who couldn’t see one another. Ah, how well I now understood the difficulty of not being able to “see” the cues for your lines. The actors must have rehearsed this two-minute scene 30 times, improving it every time.
Live theatre is created through the camaraderie and trust of so many players who work together: the playwright and the director, the actors, the stagehands, the tech folks and, not least, the audience. It is addictive. Pardon me for asking, but when are the next auditions for community actors?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Analog World vs. The Digital World

by Linda Nelson

Last Friday, Judith and I took our Board of Directors to Playwrights Horizons, in Manhattan, to see Annie Baker's new play, "The Flick."

We thought it would be appropriate: after all, the play is set in a small New England town's single screen movie theater at a time when the theater is ready to give up its beautiful 35mm projectors and go digital.

The Stonington Opera House is at that same place. In late March, our gorgeous, loyal, hard-working 1941 Simplex 35mm projector will be replaced by a true Digital Cinema system. For the record, digital cinema is not your grandma's DVD's, or even Blu-Rays. To keep doing what we're doing, bringing first run movies to you shortly after they open on our big screen, we need a big, sophisticated system that will allow the movie distribution companies to ship us hard drives rather than cannisters of 35mm film. We will be able to slot the hard drives into a special server, punch in a code to prevent movie piracy, and show the movie according to the schedule pre-booked with the distributor.

But our board didn't love Baker's "The Flick." They found it long and boring: following a couple of working class guys as they clean an old, single screen movie theater between shows, without the action or quick dialogue to which we've become accustomed. Like Baker's earlier plays, especially "The Aliens" which we produced in early 2012, "The Flick" is a masterpiece of working class realism, filled with silences and the power of ordinary, not extraordinary, dialogue. In what I think is an important way, "The Flick" isn't enough of the digital world, in which we all talk quickly and have multiple conversations simultaneously, through our phones and computers and headsets. "The Flick" is about the analog world, the one that happens slowly, in between the others; the one that happens "to" people more than "by" people. And the truth is, many of us have fallen out of love with analog. We want our agency, we want our MTV.

In an essay for the show materials, Baker reveals her own love affair, and then her falling out of love, with celluloid movies: "From age 9 to 19, movies were my greatest happiness. They were the thing that got me through the day. Watching a movie was always, always What I’d Rather Be Doing. I never felt fully present in my life, except when I was watching a movie...The point is, I fell out of love with film and when I tried to fall back in love with it I was shocked to realize that most of our country had fallen out of love with it too. But instead of falling in love with the theater, they had fallen in love with computers."

The cast of "The Flick," the new play by
Annie Baker at Playwrights' Horizons.
Live theater, by contrast, is extremely analog. Real sweating bodies on the stage right in front of us. You never know what might happen: lines might be missed, pants may rip, the actors may laugh or cry. It's unpredictable and never the same, kind of smelly and intimidating to those who have only ever known film and TV. Live theater is an analog experience, and we value and produce both at the Stonington Opera House: live theater + film.

But what about this nearly three hour play? If Baker's mission is to create a dynamic realism in which we are immersed in the experiences and worlds of her characters, and if her characters' world is, in this case, tiny, repetitive, and even grim...then how are we to reconcile being asked to sit through that world? That's what our board members wanted to know, and it's not an unreasonable question. They experienced the same thing as these characters in their lives. They were bored. They were restless--we all were. Mostly, we were uncomfortable: first physically, then intellectually, and finally--if we allowed it to take us this far--emotionally. I think Annie Baker evoked the response she wanted. But without the entertainment factor, will enough audience members be able or willing to follow her there?

In moving to digital cinema, we're taking a bold leap into a new world. Gone will be the craft of splicing together reel after reel of 35mm film, of lacing up and oiling the projector, of flipping on the rectifier, opening the dowser, adjusting the framing knob and the lens focus. It's a pretty tedious world, the world of any handcraft, in which motions and actions are repeated over and over again to ensure a quality experience for the viewer.

OHA's Artistic Advisory Board comprised of theater
artists, meeting on February 23: some of the artists had
more sympathy for "The Flick" than the
governing trustees. Photo by Alicia Anstead.
But it's one that might be worth experiencing, even in its tedium. It's one that is worth remembering -- or at least being enough aware of it to say a proper goodbye. It's one that, like so many others, demands our empathy -- and maybe even some compassion.

Baker says "The Flick" is "about the theater that will always happen between the movies." And our attentiveness to that theater of life could be important to how we move forward, together or apart, into our shared futures.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

WHY must the show go on?

Let's be realistic: it's a TV channel, and not the National Weather Service, that gave this weekend's snowstorm the name "Nemo." Still, a couple of feet of snow, zero degree temperatures, and wind creating sculptural drifts is still pretty dramatic in its own right.

Under such conditions, it's reasonable to ask the Opera House: WHY do you persist? WHY must the show go on?!

"The show must go on" is an idiom, a well-known phrase in show business, meaning that "even in the presence of troubles or difficulties, the show must still continue for the waiting patrons."

On the flip side, for the theater itself, it also has to do with the reality of our professional contracts. Here at the Opera House, we are contracted with our actors and stage managers through this Sunday, February 10. After that, they move on to other contracted jobs and opportunities, most of them back in NYC, a few here in Maine.

This reflects a truth many don't realize about the theater: it's a job. The actors you see in this weekend's production of Last Gas by John Cariani, directed by Judith Jerome, make their living from pursuing the craft of acting. They study their craft in school, practice it every day, and pay their bills by working theater jobs such as this production. The performances they provide us, on the basis of honing their craft, are transformative: moving our hearts and transporting our minds and spirits into lives related to but different from our own.

Actors Equity, the union of professional actors and stage managers,
 cast members of Last Gas: at left, Richard Price as Guy;
at right, Katie Cunningham as Lurene. Photo by Karen Galella.
With the rise of the internet and the wonderful ability of more and more of us to participate in different areas of life virtually--as writers, film critics, photographers, filmmakers, and more--the line between amateurs--those who do something for the sheer love of it--and professionals has been blurred in interesting ways. The work of amateurs in all areas, including community theater, has special meaning and is vital to all of us. And the work of professionals--those who take the risk of making some of these areas which many of us love, be it playing basketball, painting, or acting, their careers--brings a different and special level of meaning to many of our experiences.

So on a weekend like this, when the challenges and risks of putting on a theatrical production are especially large, we can't just reschedule. Our professional cast moves on on Monday, and we can't reschedule! The show MUST go on! 

Catch a glimpse of the incredible craft this particular cast brings to our Maine island community in three final shows: tonight at 7, and tomorrow at 2 pm and 7 pm.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Making Work (& A Play!)

by Linda Nelson, Executive Director
STONINGTON—In a hard working community like Stonington, it is tempting to look at your local theater and think, well, that’s about fun, not work!
For you, as audience members, that’s right. Whether it’s a movie, a concert, a dance, or live theater, Opera House Arts provides a wide range of entertainment for our communities. And this Thursday, February 7, we open what is now our annual live production for the winter. This year, the show is the newest version of Maine playwright John Cariani’s play, Last Gas.
Many people think that when a theater like the Opera House presents live professional theater that it is something  made elsewhere, something that arrives pre-made—which is true for the performances at “presenting centers” like the Collins Center. But at Opera House Arts, we make all of our shows (performance pieces are known as works) right here in Stonington.
We find or write and/or edit the scripts. We audition, hire and pay the directors, actors, and designers—the people who design the sets, lights, sound, and video for the play.
We build sets, and have master carpenters alongside community volunteers who do that. We paint entire scenes on muslin for backdrops, or signs or furniture for specific set pieces. The composers we hire write and record original music; our master electricians climb ladders and cable lighting. We rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Right now, two days before opening our original production of Last Gas, we’ve got a theater full of people working a 10 to 12 hour tech rehearsal day, programming the lighting cues, adjusting the sound volumes, testing the costumes and sets—getting everything just right.
Then when you, the audience, arrive you enter into a world seeming transformed by magic. Employing sets, lights, sound, and acting, those of us who make theater work aim to transport you from your familiar seat in a dark theater to another place and world.
It’s a lot of work behind the scenes for that magic moment—and it’s very satisfying work to have. During a show like Last Gas—a romantic comedy set in Maine’s Aroostook County, about the hopes and dreams of people who, like us, live in the sweet isolation of the nation’s most rural state—we have 21 people on payroll, with another four independent contractors. Plus, countless community volunteers donate their time and talents to making a show like this possible. Thank you!
OHA is committed to making original “work,” such as Last Gas, for our winter audiences. It’s a financial risk to produce such a large work at this time of year, but we feel strongly that we as rural Mainers deserve to hear our own voices and stories, to see the way we live represented on the stage and screen.
We hope you’ll take a chance, too, and come out to see this new work that we’ve created here during the last five weeks: it runs for only five performances, February 7-10—and then we take everything apart again! Live theater is very much something you have to show up for in the moment: it is here, and then it is gone. No DVR, no home video, only real people here on stage for a very short time.
Want to be a part of all this exciting work and play? For more information on any of the events and opportunities in this column, or for Tosca’s Wish List for how you can participate by volunteering or providing needed materials, please call 207-367-2788 or visit the Opera House’s website at